The Psychology of Apologetics: Definitions (or, Flapping Your Arms With a Pure Heart)
In this, our third essay on the psychological and rhetorical techniques that underlie evangelical Christian apologetics, we will examine some evangelical Christian claims that seem devilishly difficult to prove wrong. We have all heard such claims. They would include the following:
- If you de-convert from Christianity, you never really were a Christian at all
- All Christians, in right relationship with God, experience peace in the face of adversity
- If you sincerely seek God you will find Him
- “I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move.” (Matthew 17:20, NIV)
What I will argue is that such statements either are not actually claims about the world at all, and hence insulate themselves from disconfirming empirical evidence by defining it away, or else they are claims/predictions, but rely on vague, ill-defined subjective states and thus, are impossible to confirm. In each case, I will elucidate the issues involved and then tie it in with the relevant psychological issues.
Tinkering with definitions is a time-honored rhetorical tactic. Essentially it involves making a statement that appears to be about the world, but really, in fact, is just a claim about the meaning of the terms involved. As an example, if I state “All sentences have a verb”, it may appear that I am claiming something about what one will find out in the world – and hence, could be proven wrong by giving me counterexamples, such as if you said the following: “Wow, Richard, what a great post!” But, really, my original claim is actually a definition: I am defining a sentence as having a verb. That way, no counterexamples will prove me wrong, of course, since I will simply reply that if it does not have a verb, it does not count as a sentence. In this case, the upshot is clear: my statement “All sentences have a verb” is not telling me anything about what I will find out in the world, it tells me what I mean by the word “sentence.”
The first apologetic example listed above seems to fall into this category. “If you de-convert from Christianity you never really were a Christian at all” certainly might sound, on the surface, like an empirical claim. But it can be re-written more simply: “No true Christians de-convert.” Then, then matter becomes clearer: the speaker is defining “true” Christians as the set of individuals who never leave the fold. Hence, this claim cannot, by the terms set up, be shown to be wrong. To take issue with this claim, one must take issue with the definition itself, not point out counterexamples.
Philosophically-minded readers will notice that the above example, “No true Christians de-covert”, follows a familiar form. In fact, it is a version of a well-know logical fallacy, known as the “No True Scotsman fallacy.” The name originated from philosopher Anthony Flew’s example: “No Scotsman puts sugar in his porridge”/ “But my uncle does, and he’s from Scotland”/ “Aye, but no true Scotsman puts sugar in his porridge.” . And the effect is exactly as we have outlined: rather than letting the statement “no true Scotsman puts sugar in his porridge” be proven false by producing a Scotsman who does, in fact, do so, the original claim is preserved by instead jerryrigging the definition to exclude counterexamples.
Claims Based on Subjective States
This class of statements function similarly to definitions, but are more subtle and hence, more insidious. What occurs is that the speaker makes the truth of the claim dependent upon a internal subjective state, and hence not subject to public verification. Since I cannot “prove”, except by my own report, what has transpired in my own mind (or my own will/motives), it becomes easy to argue that I am mistaken about it. An example will, I think, make this clear.
If I assert: “If you flap your arms, you can fly to the moon”, the falsity of the claim is obvious. It would be easy for everyone to see (if anyone cared to test this hypothesis) that if one flaps ones arms, one will indeed not fly. But if I instead state, “If you flap your arms and have a pure heart, you can fly to the moon”, the situation is different: now I always have an excuse for anyone’s failure to fly. I can always assert that yes, clearly you did flap your arms (we can all see that), but you did not have a pure heart, and that is why you did not succeed. And so I can maintain the truth of my assertion. Now, in this case, the obvious absurdity of this claim is such that I am not likely to convince anyone that the reason she cannot fly is that she has an impure heart. But consider the following:
“If you sincerely seek God, you will find Him.” (I.e., you will convert to my faith)
This sort of statement is often encountered from those who are asserting that if you “really” wish to know the alleged truth of Christianity, God will reveal it to you, and you will thus convert. But notice the subjective condition: the seeking must be “sincere.” How do we know if someone is sincere? Obviously, other than his or her own self-report, there is no way to know. And that is the point: this statement, as stated, gives us no way to independently determine whether the seeking was, in fact, sincere, beyond just that “outcome measure” included in the statement itself. I.e., the only way to know whether the seeking was sincere is if you do, in fact, eventually convert.
Surely this is a problem. Stated this way we have no way to take issue with whether this claim is, in fact, true. “Blame” for failure of this prediction can always be distributed to the sincerity, not to the link between seeking and conversion. It could even be argued that, functionally, these sorts of claims serve as definitions, as described above: all true (i.e, sincere) God-seekers convert.
And other evangelical claims follow this same pattern. How much heartache has been created throughout the centuries by Jesus’ “if you have faith as small as a mustard seed” claim? The exact same considerations apply: there is no way at all to determine whether one’s faith is the size of a mustard seed (obviously a very loose metaphor) beyond just that outcome measure: does you effort to move mountains succeed, or not? Not many Christians are willing to up and say that Jesus was wrong. He is Jesus, so he must be right. Yet the mountain did not move. So it must be me.
The reason these sorts of apologetic efforts are so problematic is that those in the process of uprooting themselves from their faith are already in a state of emotional upheaval. As I have argued in previous articles, evangelical Christian theology saddles them with a number of handicaps: It aggressively tries to undermine critical thinking skills as well as autonomy, by teaching both are sin. It inculcates in them a in deep fear of Hell should they turn out to be mistaken. They often have no support form their community and possibly their own family. They have been taught to always assume the worst about themselves – human beings are, after all, wholly corrupt – and to always trust the “the Bible” (i.e., evangelical dogma) over everything else. Thus, those struggling with leaving their faith are already highly prone to doubt themselves and tremendously unsure about their basic identity.
And what I suggest is that these sorts of evangelical claims function as an easy out: they cut through all the doubt about one’s motives and sincerity by seeming to provide external and easily-visible measure of one’s own internal state. That is, these claims have the effect of “mind-reading”. One must therefore either be able to question the logic involved (as I am pointing out here in this article), or else call upon enormous internal fortitude to trust own self-examination over the dogma – something those in the midst of de-conversion are ill-equipped to do. It takes a high degree of self-assurance to say, “Yes, indeed I have been sincere and I did have faith – and nothing happened” when everything in your experience and indoctrination has taught you to blame yourself, rather than the theology.
Individuals in the midst of de-conversion, as almost all of them attest, go through painful periods of doubt and anxiety and uncertainty. But most have never been taught any way to handle that doubt and uncertainty beyond the usual Christian bromides: pray, “spend time in the Word”, have faith, “just believe”. Which are precisely those solutions the decoverting individual in beginning to suspect don’t work. The trouble is, they know of few, if any, other options.
For me, this issue is in fact rather personal, as it was just one of these sorts of claims that caused me no end of anguish and self-flagellation. For me, the claim I struggled with came from C. S. Lewis’ theology. It was complex and could be stated something like this:
“If you fully submit your will to God, you will be in right relationship with Him, and He will fill you with His spirit. If you are fully self-less in this way, you will be filled with transcendent peace and joy, for this is the state of bliss human beings were created for. However, you must not submit your will for that reason – in order to receive this peace – because that is essentially using God to try to get what you want. I.e., you would be really asserting your will, and only pretending to submit it. And self-assertion is sin. You must, rather, truly and fully submit your will, out of pure love of and desire for God. “
This could be simplified to, roughly: if you truly submit your will to God, for the right reason, you will be filled with transcendent peace. Based on this, I spent many years in ruthless introspection trying to root out whatever selfishness and self-will I could find and thereby purify my motives. This was exceedingly difficult because I was, at that time in my life, horribly depressed and unhappy in my life and it seemed inhuman to ask me to somehow not wish to feel better, and be motived exclusively by a desire for God. But I tried anyway. Prayer, Bible study, seeking the will of God, and all the usual prescriptions had had little effect. Needless to say, this prescription didn’t work, either, but it was only years later that I was able to see clearly why: the hypothesis is false. Submission of the will, meaning something like the volitional cessation of all desires other than the desire for God, does not lead to peace or joy, or even if it does, it is humanly impossible. It wasn’t me, it was the theology. Hallelujah.
And since I found peace, joy, contentment by other means, I was eventually able to set this whole apologetic morass aside. Hopefully, by making plain what is really going on, I can help others do the same: realize that if you flap your arms, whatever the state of your heart, you do not get closer to God. You just get tired and you feel like a failure.